Scenes Within Scenes


"Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence."

– Minor White

     It had been a while since I had made any photographs, since I had been spending most of my time happily at home with my newborn son. So before heading up to lead a weeklong workshop in Olympic National Park, I gave myself a few extra days to go hiking and retune myself to the slow rhythm of nature. After taking a few months off from photography, I was worried my eyes would not be as sharp, and I would not be able to recognize subtle details and visual elements which play a crucial role in making compelling photographs. 

     After considering our many options, my friend Michael Bollino and I decided to hike out to a very popular, heavily photographed waterfall which I had never been to before, and that he had not visited for some years. I had seen the waterfall many times in photographs before, which is why I decided to ignore it in my previous trips to the Portland, Oregon area. But since I wasn't necessarily hoping to create any photographs, I thought at the very least it would be worth seeing in person and make for a nice hike on a hot, clear, sunny day.

     We headed out in the morning once we were awake and ready, without trying to time our arrival to coincide with any certain kind of lighting or anything. As I usually am, we were simply open to whatever we might find. We pulled into a mostly full parking lot, and found a narrow space to park in a rocky gap between a couple of Subarus laden with national park stickers. After a solitary, quiet hike, we arrived to this waterfall only to find it surrounded by about 30-40 people taking selfies, lying in hammocks, and enjoying the scenery. I'll admit that initially the large audience was distracting, and my first instinct was to turn around and head back to the car. But thanks to the constant, entrancing music of the large, roaring waterfall which drowned out all other sound, I was able to tune out the crowd and have my own conversation with the swaying trees, wet moss, and cascading falls. 

     I started out by walking around a bit, looking at the falls from different angles, waiting for something to speak to me before pulling out my camera or choosing a lens. The tall trees all around me were filtering the harsh sunlight as it came up from behind the falls, creating beams and causing it to fall in small pieces across the many cascades. I stopped here and pulled out my camera and attached my 70-300mm lens, knowing I would need to zoom in a bit in order to show what I was seeing. With my camera set up on my tripod, I played with different shutter speeds, and watched as the beams of light quickly moved down this section of the waterfall, pressing the shutter periodically as the balance changed. 

     In the moment that I captured this photograph, I felt these three beams created a nice pattern overlaying the smooth yet defined textures of the three main cascades beneath them. The warm sunlight and cool shadows created a pleasing yet simple color contrast as well. Shortly after, this section was completely shaded, so I picked up my tripod and followed the light.

     In a different section, higher up, I noticed these mossy rocks being illuminated by fainter, less intense sunlight that was being heavily diffused by the dense canopy of pine needles up above. I zoomed in and oriented my camera vertically, as to exclude the messier clumps of twigs, branches, and rocks caught in the falls that betrayed the feeling of serenity that this small scene was conveying.

     I sat and observed as the intensity of the light changed and moved across the falls, and again experimented with different shutter speeds as I captured several exposures. Once the light was positioned as you can see here, only illuminating the main part of the scene around the center of the composition, leaving the edges in shadow, I felt satisfied with the resulting photograph.

"Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression."

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

     One of my favorite things about going out to shoot with fellow photographers is seeing what they come away with from the same location afterwards. While I was photographing these other scenes, Michael was off doing his own thing. Here he captured a wider, more complex scene that features more of the waterfall with multiple beams of light illuminating different sections, unlike any of the photographs that I made. I feel this image does a nice job showcasing what it feels like to be at this waterfall in person, watching in awe while the scattered light is dancing across its face. Something else that's interesting to point out in this scene is that if you look closely, you can spot two of the compositions that I made. 

     I'm glad that Michael captured this photograph, so I can look at it and be brought back to this experience, and remember different elements that I enjoyed but which are not present in my own images. This is also a unique take on this waterfall that I had never seen before. Michael and I have gone out to photograph together on many different occasions, and we always manage to come back with different takes on the same places, as our own personal experiences always tend to produce unique perspectives.

     Since the area around the waterfall was mostly shaded, I was freezing cold by now, only wearing a thin t-shirt, not expecting it to be so frigid on such a hot, sunny day. So I headed back up the hill and out to a clearing in the forest to bask in the warm, direct sunlight. I was sitting down, comfortably admiring the falls from a distance while chatting with Michael about random things, when I saw this scene that I had actually noticed about an hour earlier on our way into the falls.

     By now the direction of the sunlight had changed, so that it was only directly illuminating small parts of this group of pine trees while they were also being bathed in softer, glowing light reflecting from off the ground below. The falls farther behind the trees were completely shaded, and taking on a complementary, cooler, bluish hue because of their distance from the 

light. This attractive color contrast was the main element of the scene that caught my eye.

     I turned my camera back on and positioned myself here, where these clean, well spaced trees were backdropped by a simpler section of the falls, so that it would make them pop out without drawing too much attention to itself. Because I was on the edge of the tree line, a breeze was coming through and causing the thin branches of these pine trees to bounce around. Since I needed to photograph the waterfall at a relatively slower shutter speed in order for it to be smooth and simplified, this caused the swaying trees to come out slightly blurry. 

     For several minutes at a time I patiently waited for brief lulls in the wind so that the trees would become still again. After several exposures, the still air and the light both coincided so that the illuminated parts of the scene felt balanced and none of the branches were blurry.

     Michael and I continued to enjoy the warm balmy sunlight for sometime. By now it was midday, and I was feeling somewhat satisfied with the experience, but I was also unsure if I had really made any photographs that I was proud of. After all, with the intense dynamic range in each of these scenes, it was difficult to make out the details I had captured in the shadows and know exactly how they would turn out later during post-processing. I decided to head back down closer to the falls one last time to see if anything else spoke to me. 

"I began to realize that the camera sees the world differently than the human eye and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed."

– Galen Rowell

     Back down from the base of the falls, I noticed this small, lone section being hit by a glowy, surreal spotlight. What caught my eye however wasn't the light itself, rather, I was drawn to the intense ring of shadows that helped to shape it by forming a natural vignette. This intense contrast also created a mood that I had not captured in any of my previous photographs of the falls either, evoking more mystery and wonder.

     Because of the intense contrast from the light and the dark tone of the rocks, this scene came out naturally monochromatic, appearing to be black & white without actually desaturating anything. I feel 

this simplified tonality and neutral color palette allows you to appreciate the light even more without any additional distractions, adding even more intensity to the mood and emotions it conveys.

     After photographing this scene, I realized that several hours had somehow passed since we'd first arrived. Slowly coming out of a hypnotic trance, I once again became aware of the crowd of people around me, which had only grown by now. This is the state of mind in which creativity flourishes, popularly referred to as 'flow'–when you tune out everything else around you and the entire world is reduced to only you and your subject. I like to call it Zen.

     Because of the intimate nature of each of these four photographs, by excluding most of the surrounding context, most people would not be able to tell that they are of the same waterfall unless I disclosed it. Creating more photographs is not about photographing on more days, but in more ways. Being able to capture the same subject in different ways that are unique from one another comes down to being creative enough to find new perspectives based on where you stand, the lenses you use, and the light interacting with it. After all, like I always say, making great photographs isn't about what you photograph, but how you photograph it.  

     In addition to these four photographs that I've released, I actually shot a few other scenes this day that were also portfolio worthy. However, I decided not to release them based on the feeling that although they were of different sections of the falls, they were too similar to these four to the point that they felt redundant and would potentially dilute their impact.

     What inspired me to write this article was the clear example that these photographs made of how you can create so many different scenes, even within the same location on the same day. I hope that this can help to open your mind the next time you visit a place, and prevent you from becoming complacent on a single composition. There is always more to see and share if you just allow yourself enough time to pay attention to the subject matter, the light, and respond to what speaks to you. These intimate conversations with the places that I visit are what I enjoy so much about photography. 

You can learn more about composition, using light creatively, and how to

see the world differently in my tutorial video series: "Essential Theory."

If you've enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in my other article: "Creating Novel Imagery in Popular Locations."

If you are not familiar with the work of Michael Bollino, I highly recommend you study his beautiful portfolio. You can visit his website by clicking here:


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  • Barbara Livieri

    on February 9, 2022

    Great lessons to be learned here. Very inspirational Eric. Zenmaster extraordinaire! ☺️ Thanks!

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